How to use technology to upgrade your language learning

Tom Matsuda

Everybody knows that Japanese is a notoriously difficult language to learn. The toxic combination of effectively three different alphabets and over 2000 characters creates a language that seems impenetrable to wannabe Japanese language learners.

Whilst it is undeniable that learning Japanese (along with another other language) is difficult, we arguably live in the best time ever to study languages. We have access to dictionaries on our phone, apps that can put you in touch with native speakers and even subtitled foreign language Netflix series. Which is why it is such a shame that so many of us seem to academically shun language learning in the English speaking world.

As English speakers who are alive during the digital revolution, we are in prime position to master any foreign tongue.

In a time before the digital revolution, language scholars had to resort to paper dictionaries that were not only cumbersome to carry with you but sometimes also lacked the most recent additions to a language. Our dictionaries are now embedded within our mobile phones and continuously learn new words. I can’t count the amount of times this portability and updatability has come in handy.

Thanks in part to the digital revolution, the world is now globalised and we have access to a wealth of foreign language media. It is time us English native speakers stopped expecting the world to speak our language and use technology to learn the many tongues our globe has to offer.

A whole world of languages in your pocket

The App Store has arguably been a gift to all language learners. Google Translate is great for on-the-go phrases whilst travelling, it cannot compare to everyday utility of a dictionary app. The app not only receives timely updates but also features an in-app vocabulary trainer. From personal use, I’ve also found that it often can quickly discern the most obscure English idioms into their German equivalents. It also offers languages ranging from Croatian to Spanish.

Moreover, other dictionary apps such as Yomiwa allow one to paste in Japanese text conversations and access readings and translations. In addition to this, you can take photos of any Japanese text that you encounter and learn the reading and translation. As any Japanese learner knows, being unable to read Kanji (Chinese characters) means that often simple things such as reading off an menu can be put to a stop.

Additionally, apps such as Memrise and Duolingo are indispensable to a language learner in terms of grammar. They will allow you to grasp grammatically the basics of a wide range of languages. HelloTalk can then put you in touch with native speakers where you can practice your newly learnt foreign language prowess.

Full language immersion is just a click away

However, it’s not just our phones that can help. It’s also Netflix and a Kindle that can help too. In fact, through this technology we can easily simulate the environment of being immersed in another language. No longer do we have to hop on a plane to get easy access to a foreign language book or TV show. We have it all at our fingertips.

Netflix has a wide variety of foreign language originals which can help you get your headspace into your target language. You can also supercharge this by downloading a Google chrome extension app called Netflix for Language Learners, which allows you to have subtitles in not only English but also the language you’re learning. Netflix for Language Learners has given me an excuse to binge watch hours of Japanese reality TV show Terrace House as arguably it’s benefitting my studies anyway (or so I tell myself).

Read your way to fluency

A Kindle should also be on any language learner’s wish list. Through the Kindle Store, you can most likely access foreign language version of your favourite books and reading material directed at learners.

Reading in another language is shown to not only increase reading fluency but also increase listening and speaking skills due to access to new vocabulary. The Kindle software can help facilitate this as you can easily highlight words you don’t understand and look them up in the dictionary. Moreover, it also offers a translation software and even the ability to look up your highlighted text in the dictionary. This is particularly useful in regards to culture-specific anecdotes such as mentions of domestic TV shows or traditions.

This is how I’ve used technology to maximise my language learning. As English speakers who are alive during the digital revolution, we are in prime position to master any foreign tongue. Our non-English speaking neighbours have already done the same to learn our language. For example, countries such as Aruba and Luxembourg are known for their proficiency in foreign languages. Technology gives monolingual English native speakers like you and I the chance to return the favour.

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British-Japanese writer from London. Words in OneZero, Human Parts.


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